RealNetworks has released a beta of RealPlayer Plus 8, its cross-platform media player.

The player carries a series of enhancements, designed to take advantage of high bandwidth connections. These include a new Integrated Media Guide, which lets users choose the audio-visual programming needed. A new Real.com Media Search function gives the player a search facility for streaming media, searching through either popular categories or via a custom search. Personalized programming updates are also available, including music by genre, movies and sports updates.

The player also offers a Radio Tuner capable of accessing 2,500 Internet radio stations, and supports the MP3 format. A new addition is the ‘Visualization" feature, which offers five different pre-built visual effects that move with the music, effects can also be customized. A new iQfx 2.0 Basic module has been added, which can add 3D audio effects to music.

RealNetworks developed the software with Intel, aiming to deliver significantly improved streaming-video quality over the Internet. Based on a set of mathematical algorithms, the authoring/streaming environment delivers VHS-quality images at one-third the file size of previous streaming applications, according to the company.

Quality Because of this, RealNetworks claims its users can expect VHS videotape quality for ADSL and cable modem connections. The software also includes a codec to stream video at near-DVD quality at 1Mbps. Full-screen streaming video is also a possibility. Francis Ford Coppola said: "RealNetworks has broken through the Internet’s video barrier and provided unprecedented opportunities for film makers and broadcasters."

Despite the significantly-enhanced features of the player for high-bandwidth connections, Jeremy Schwartz, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, said: "They've obviously taken some steps forward in video quality, but the issue is how many consumers can take advantage of it."

ADSL is set for roll-out in the UK by BT in July, with competition entering the UK market one year later. Recent reports also indicate that BT has failed to make any security provision for its ADSL users, posing a very real hacker threat to the early adopters of this technology.

RealSystem, the authoring environment, does not run on Apple systems, and is set to provide major competition to both Apple’s QuickTime and Windows MediaPlayer technologies. MacNN reports Rick Doherty, director of research at the Envisioneering Group, said: "RealNetworks has a set of solutions that go way beyond QuickTime 4. It’s an extreme challenge for Apple."

RealNetworks also announced the Real Digital Distribution SDK (software developers kit), which it claims will allow device manufacturers to link portable-music players and peripherals to its RealJukebox software. The kit will ship with support for five portable music devices, and over 20 device manufacturers have announced their support for RealJukebox 2, according to RealNetworks. The developers kit allows for the preservation of music copyrights by following Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) guidelines and transferring only those files that allow portable device support.

The player, in beta form, is available for download from www.real.com.